Vanguard Video! Leah’s Video for Soviet Revolutionary Rituals and Art (Week 11, Day 1)

Hello, Revolutionaries! This is our video for Week 11, Day 1. Our subject is Soviet Revolutionary Rituals, and our teaching assistant is Maggie.

We’ll start, as usual, with announcements. I’m looking forward to discussing your Research Questions and List of Sources with each of you on Monday and Tuesday this week. After that meeting, you should plan to start working on your three-page rough draft. Those are due on Friday, April 24 on Sakai. So, that gives you about a week and a half to work on them. I’ll send those back to you with written comments as quickly as I can. If you want to set up another virtual office hours meeting on Teams to discuss my written comments, we can do that, too. Just email me, and we can set it up.

This week, we’re making our final visit to the Soviet Era, to explore Soviet cultural revolution. Today, we’re focusing on the 1920s, which is going to fill in a gap for us. In our unit on Political Revolution, we discussed the Revolutions of 1917 and the Civil War, which ended in 1921. Then, in our unit on Social Revolution, we jumped to the First Five Year Plan, which ran from 1928-1932. We talked some at that point about the development of the Soviet economy in the 1920s, and how the shortcomings of the New Economic Policy, including a lack of social mobility, set the stage for industrialization, collectivization of agriculture, and the creation of Stalin’s new elite. But while those political, economic, and social developments were brewing, what was going on with culture? That’s what we’re going to explore today.

Based on you reading of “What Is To Be Done?”, it may not surprise you that Lenin didn’t have very strong ideas about culture. He was ultra-focused on politics and making the revolution a success. But there were other people around—Party leaders and sympathetic artists—who did have dreams for what Soviet culture should be like. The problem was, while everyone agreed that Soviet culture must be radically different from the past, beyond that they had quite different agendas. Because Lenin was preoccupied with the Soviet Union’s struggle for survival, the various factions that developed around the culture question got to spend the 1920s debating each and experimenting with different ways of implementing their ideas. This situation continued through most of the decade. After Lenin’s death, while Stalin worked on consolidating his power over his rivals, he also gave culture a pass. The period of experimentation ended with the coming of the First Five Year Plan. We’ll talk about what came next and how the state developed an official Soviet aesthetic next time. But today, we’re exploring some of the many experiments with revolutionary culture in the 1920s.

In doing so, we are examining two different areas of “culture.” Our secondary source, Richard Stites’ article “Bolshevik Ritual Building int h 1920s,” deals with culture defined as how people mark important moments in their lives. As Stites notes, the Bolsheviks were staunch atheists, but they made their revolution in a country where the vast majority of the population were practicing Orthodox Christians. This created a dilemma regarding how the new government ought to handle the urge for religious ritual—whether or not to replace it, and if so, how. The types of secular rituals the Bolsheviks tied to create and how ordinary people related to them raises some interesting questions about the Soviet state’s relationship to “the masses,” in whose name they made their revolution. We’ll talk about that more in a minute.

The other area of culture we’re working with today is culture defined as the arts. In this realm, two groups quickly formed around very different styles of art, and they spent the 1920s arguing vehemently with each other, while creating experimental artworks. The first group called itself the Avant-Gardists. They wanted to create works that were wildly experimental, using new sounds and visual juxtapositions, completely rejecting and invalidating the “bourgeois” art of the 19th century. They wanted to bring the sights, sounds, and technologies of workers’ lives into the realm of culture to make a brand new type of art that would speak directly to workers and validate their experiences. We have three sources on the avant-garde perspective: an essay by the visual artist Boris Arvatov, a podcast about Arseny Avraamov’s Symphony of Sirens, and Alexandre Mosolov’s The Iron Foundry.

The second group with a new vision for Soviet culture in the 1920s called itself the Proletarians. They were not proletarians, themselves; they were trained artists. But they claimed to speak in the name of the proletariat, to know what workers actually wanted, which, they asserted, was not what the Avant-Gardists had to offer. In their view Soviet culture must be “proletarian” in the sense of being immediately intelligible and appealing to workers, and ideally created by workers themselves, not professionally trained artists. We have two sources on the Proletarian perspective: “The Ideological Platform of the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians,” and song that I’ve added to your list, Alexander Alexandrov and Vasily Lebedev-Kumach’s “Life Has Become Better.” You may recognize the title of this song from Stalin’s “Speech at the First All-Union Congress of Stakhanovites,” which he gave in 1935. The song was written later than the 1920s, but it is a good representation of the “Proletarian” style.

I think that’s all the contextual information we need. Now on to some discussion questions.

Leah’s Discussion Questions

1. All of our sources today speak to the Bolsheviks’ desire to use culture as a tool for creating a new type of person, the New Soviet Person, who thinks and acts differently from anyone who came before. Why do you think this was important to early Soviet thinkers? How does it shape our understanding of the Bolsheviks as revolutionaries that they didn’t want to just take power, they actually wanted to create a new culture? Is this a necessary part of revolution, or does it go too far?

2. In his article “Bolshevik Ritual Building in the 1920s,” Richard Stites explains that Soviet leaders figured out early on that they needed to come up with something to replace religious festivals and rituals in ordinary citizens’ lives. At first, they tried counter-festivals designed to parody religion and educate the masses in rationalism. But both the Komsomol Christmas of 1922 and the Komsomol Easter of 1923 were disasters in different ways. Stites claims the problem with these events was that “if the performances were salted with antireligious skits, they descended back to carnival; if they were not, they were dull.” (Stites, 298) What is your take on this problem? Could the Bolsheviks have come up with an effective secular replacement for these festivals? If so, what could they have done differently? If not, why not?

3. The Bolsheviks also sought to replace the Church’s life cycle rituals, particularly baptism, weddings, and funerals. Stites tells us that the most successful of the three was Octobering, which replaced baptism. Can you analyze the Octobering ritual? From the Bolshevik point of view, how does it work to not only replace the role of God, but correct other prejudices engendered by religion? Look through the list of revolutionary names on pp. 300-301. Which are your favorites and why? What values do these names convey? What do you think parents would be thinking in giving their child one of these names? Consider Stites’ meditation on the significance of names and naming: how would Octobering with these names help to create a cultural revolution?

4. Octobering, Red Weddings, and especially Red Funerals all ultimately fail to catch on. Why don’t they work as substitutes for traditional baptisms, weddings and funerals? What do the Bolsheviks gets wrong about rituals? What should they have done instead?

5. Unfortunately, we can’t listen to Arseny Avraamov’s Symphony of Sirens. (If you’ve listened to the podcast, you’ll know why!)  Even so, what is the story of this piece of music? In what way does it make sense as the music for the new Soviet culture? In what ways does it not make sense? Maynes tells us that “Avraamov thought music was the ultimate communal experience.” Would you characterize this piece as communal? Why or why not?

6. Listen to Alexander Mosolov’s Iron Foundry. What do you hear? (Brainstorm a list as you listen!) What emotions does it evoke in you? What images does it evoke? What features of the musical language identify this piece as avant-garde? How does it incorporate the sounds of the new Soviet life? Do you think factory workers would like to listen this piece? Why or why not?

7. Now listen to Alexandrov’s “Life Has Become Better!” Again, brainstorm a list of sounds, emotions, and images that come to you. How would you describe this piece? What aspects make it proletarian? How is it different form Mosolov’s Iron Foundry? Which do you think would be more appealing to workers and why?

8. Now that we’ve got the sounds in our heads, let’s look at the theories behind them. Start with Arvatov’s “The Proletariat and Leftist Art.” Arvatov begins by laying out the difference between “bourgeois art” and “proletarian art.” Read the first paragraph of the essay. Can you explain this difference, in your own words? Why doesn’t proletarian art exist yet? How will we recognize it when it comes into being?

9. As if that weren’t enough, it turns out there’s a third kind of art: Leftist art, which is the real subject of this essay. Make a close reading of the second full paragraph on p.239 (“Leftist are on the other hand…”) Can you unpack Arvatov’s ideas here? How is Leftist art different from the other two types, and how will it enable proletarian art to develop? Compare this to Lenin’s idea of the Vanguard Party in “What Is To Be Done?”. With this theory of Leftist art, is Arvatov being a good Leninist, or is he just finding a way to justify the art he likes to make?

10. One of the major differences between the Avant-Gardists and the Proletarians was on the issue of intelligibility. For the Proletarians, if workers don’t immediately understand a piece of art, then it doesn’t serve their interests. Look closely at the last paragraph on p.238 and the first paragraph on p.239 (starting from “They shout…”) How does Arvatov counter the Proletarians’ claim? Does he convince you that Leftist art can serve the proletariat’s interests?

11. Finally, let’s turn to the “Ideological Platform of the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians (RAPM).” Points 1 and 7 together make a bold assertion about the goal of art. How does this fit with the Bolsheviks’ goal of using culture to create a new society? Would the Avant-Gardists necessarily disagree? Do you agree that this can be a goal of art? Do you agree that it is always the goal of art?

12. The Proletarians agree with the Avant-Gardists that there is “bourgeois art” and “proletarian art.” But the Proletarians have a different explanation for the phenomenon that Arvatov calls “Leftist art.” Make a close reading of Points 6 and 9. What point is RAPM making here? How does this demonstrate the difference in perspectives between the two camps? Which way would you characterize The Iron Foundry: Leftist art or bourgeois decadence?

13. On the last two pages, RAPM sets out its vision for the future development of proletarian art.  What role do they give to themselves? How does this differ from the role Arvatov gives to the Avant-Gardists? Which side do you expect to emerge triumphant from this debate? Which side has a better strategy? Which side promotes better music?

10 Replies to “Vanguard Video! Leah’s Video for Soviet Revolutionary Rituals and Art (Week 11, Day 1)”

  1. 1) I think that Stites article does a good job of showing how important the idea that the Bolsheviks wanted to create a new type of person was. Stites also clearly shows how the Bolsheviks felt towards religion. I think that something important to note form the article was that although they wanted to do away with religion, they still had some form for people to put spiritual faith towards. I think that this is important because it goes to show that even the Bolsheviks thought that people need something to believe in. I think that this should be a necessary part to any revolution. When the thirteen colonies broke away from Great Britain, a similar question remained: how do we identify as a new nation. I think this was an effort begin to find that new identity of who they were going to be as a culture and nation going forward.

    2)This might have been my favorite discussion question because I feel as though I may be able to relate to this one the most. Stite’s points out the the Bolsheviks wanted to break up religious events so that they couldn’t generate support for christianity. I cant think of a more obvious comparison to a situation like this then when I was a senior in high school. The Christmas Liturgy was one of the most anticipated religious events we did because it was on the last day of school and there was always a lot of energy to get people in the Christmas spirit. My senior year, the management at my school thought that the liturgy was getting people too excited (it really was getting out of hand) so my senior year there was assigned alphabetical seating and also no singing. The sing along was a rewritten version of the 12 days of Christmas and once it was gone it took all the air out of the Liturgy, management had won. I feel like management was the Bolsheviks, the students were the people, and the liturgy was the religious events. All the Bolsheviks had to do was take away their sing along. I think there was a lot of opportunity for the Bolsheviks to ruin religious events but didn’t go about it the right way.

    3) Octobering was a way to replace religious tradition but ultimately it did not catch. I think that it is interesting how at the ceremony, Stites points out that there is a part where the mother acknowledges that she is raising her kid physically but mentally he is being raised by society. This is important because its saying that you are raised by your nation and so you should be grateful, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a way to try and make people loyal to the state and also make people think that they have a duty to help each other grow as people. I didn’t really agree with the strict policy on naming. Looking at this from a parental point of view, I want to name my kid whatever I want or after who ever I want, I don’t believe that a persons name dictates who they become. Therefore, I don’t believe a persons name should be that significant and controlled.
    Names I would choose: Vladin/Vladina

    Iron Foundry: scary, dark, something is happening, sounds like a lot of people or machines, sounds like the scene in the Wizard of Oz when the flying monkeys come in and mess up the scarecrow.
    I dont really think this is what factory works would want to listen to just because it sounds like your in a factory. Or this could be exactly what you want to listen to in a factory because its fast paced and edgey and maybe just puts you in the zone. I think its tempo and how it starts out strong might make it avant garde

    USSR Anthem: has words and a happy melody, makes me think like a war just ended and soldiers are happy and celebrating, has a melody and chorus.
    I think that this song is more proletariat because it kind of sounds like it could be for the working man. This sounds like a song people would be singing while they work

  2. The ideal of the New Soviet Person is extremely revealing as to what type of government and culture the new regime was trying to establish. In the years after the Revolution, it became necessary to increase the divide between what was, the generations of Tsarist, Orthodox authority, and what was trying to be achieved. If you remove the governmental structures that the Empire and Religion provided it became necessary to replace them with structures that could maintain the state in similar ways. In order to supplant these archaic structures of the old empire, Lenin “envisioned socialism as immediate community and faith triumphant, its basic human attributes as love and solidarity, and its historical agent as the proletariat.” Creating the New Soviet Person based on the Bolshevik vision of socialism, and having this identity thrive in the communal setting, provided for new methods of propping up society in spite of the lack of Empire and Religion. Socialism and the New Soviet Person would serve to replace the institutions that had previously governed the society. Instead of a people governed by an autocrat and religion, the New Soviet Person could thrive based on a society governed by socialism.

  3. The Octobering ritual was a way for newborns to be accepted into the community. It illustrates the Soviets view that all of the workers come together to better society and accepting newborns in straight away shows the importance of that community feeling. When in the one instance, “The Pioneers then folded the baby in a red banner and vowed to enroll her in their unit,” the Pioneers portray their respect for the community ideal and it’s kind of humorous promising a baby into its future as a committed worker for the communist cause (Stites 300). Octobering also replaced the way babies were named by allowing couples to name their children. These new revolutionary names took away from the traditional name day of the saint, so people were no longer celebrating a past tradition.
    My favorite of these new names are the ones listed under “Culture, Myth, Nature, Place Names” because the other ones would be weird for anyone in our day and age to be named. The names created after revolutionary leaders remind me of how people name their children George and Abraham or after celebrities. The industrial concept names are very odd; it would be like if someone named their kid Tractor now. These names convey that the Soviets valued the revolution and the revolutionary process. They took great pride in the concepts and people that came with it. If a parent named their child one of these names, they would probably be thinking that their child will be fortunate in Soviet society. Octobering with these names helped create a cultural revolution because these people with the names are a physical embodiment of the importance of the communist revolution. A name is with a person for life if he or she chooses, it’s spoken every day, multiple times a day, and it carries with it a meaning. In this case, it carries a revolutionary meaning.

  4. In response to Question 3:

    When the Bolsheviks initiated their socialist revolution in 1917, they were able to successfully take over the Winter Palace, but their revolutionary objective encompassed all of society, including the deep cultural ties that were built in Russian Orthodoxy. During the 1920’s many Bolshevik intellectuals looked for ways to replace Church rituals. One phenomenon that grew from the revolution was Octobering, a replacement of baptism. The Octobering ritual had parents present their newborn to proletariat workers, whereupon “The parents delivered a verbal promise to raise the child in the spirit of communism, the ‘Internationale’ was sung, and choruses performed folk songs” (Stites 300). This ritual in a way mimics Baptism, but replaces the religious aspects of it. For example, a mother of a child at an Octobering ritual proclaimed, “The child belongs to me only physically. For spiritual upbringing I present it to society” (Stites 300). Baptism is a ritual where a child is brought into the Church, and spiritually given to God. This new Bolshevik ritual replaces God with society. In a sense, Octobering welcomes a child into the Communist state, whereupon they will serve society (not God). This ritual successfully replaces God from the strong religious culture of Russia, with the newly revolutionized Bolshevik culture. Simultaneously, it replaces engendered ideals of religion within rituals. Traditionally, the male head of the household picked the name of newborns, modeled after male saints. But with Octobering the couple chooses the name, creating a bigger voice for women within the household.

    When reading the revolutionary names, I particularly liked the names that were modeled after revolutionary leaders (Engelina, Il’ich, Stalina) and the names after revolutionary concepts (Volia and Iskra). The names modeled after revolutionary leaders are funny to me because they are transforming the middle/last names of leaders inter given names that are very obviously modeled after someone. But I think the names modeled after revolutionary concepts are cool because there is a meaning behind the name. If I had a name named after a concept, I’m sure I would grow up with that in mind and try to stay true to who I was meant to be, based on what my parents named me after. This is why I think these names are particularly useful for the Octobering ritual to instill a cultural revolution. They encapsulate a meaning or objective in a sense. If you are named after Stalin, you would want to be a dedicated Communist party member. If you are named after the revolutionary concept Serpina (from sickle), you would likely take up work farming in the villages and dedicating your life to the kolkhoz. Given what Stites says about the importance of Octobering, this particular ritual helps the Bolsheviks create a cultural revolution by undoing the deep (sometimes mindless) task or religious baptism and creating a new society, with new values. By stripping the deep rituals away from society, Octobering’s unique names allow people to be more strongly connected with each other, society, and the Communist party.

  5. In response to question one. The idea of culture and a new culture was important to Soviet thinkers because without a new identity Russia would always be old, absolutist monarchy Russia. The Soviet thinkers needed to set themselves apart and have Russia be a new communist nation. This is quite apparent in “The Proletariat and Leftist Art” by Arvatov. Art has always been a political tool, even if the artist did not mean it to be. Due to symbolism, viewers and art historians can create a narrative from art, even if that is a different narrative than what the artist wanted to tell. Napoleon Bonaparte is specifically credited for being knowledgeable about art as propaganda and using that to his advantage. Thus by making art that spins a more leftist narrative, it changes the culture of Russian art, because it adds that type of art into the galleries or salons. Moreover, art as an entity is so powerful in creating or perpetuating a culture, through subject and style. Art movements throughout history have had a hand in the evolution of culture. Thus to fully have a successful revolution that does not eventually end up right back at the beginning, you have to evolve the culture, or people are going to question why the government is different and everything else is the same. by changing art, music, fashion, tradition they are equating that with the new government and thus creating a new nation.

  6. In response to question six and “The Iron Foundry”: that song is kind of terrifying. It sounds very dark and suspenseful. It also sounds like something from a horror movie. It also sounds like something that would be in an old war or spy movie. In fact I was so sure that it would be in movies that I searched it and found that it was in movies such as Die Hard 3. As I was listening to the song I began to see some of the aspects that caused the name “The Iron Foundry”, there was sort of a rhythmic pulsing that sounded very similar to pistons firing or sledgehammers falling in a pattern that they actually would be falling. You can definitely see that this fits into the Avant Gard art form style as it was very different from anything like it at the time. In the same note, I can also see how it was trying to appeal to the workers as due to the kind of dismal and dark repetitiveness of the song. This is something that at first listen would seem as though would not be popular among the workers but when you begin to think about it makes perfect sense for the workers to listen to. The song matches what the workers would be feeling like at the time and through their work. While it is definitely not an uplifting song by any means I do believe it was a song the workers would listen to because it would have matched their mood and it matches the sounds of the work that they would have been doing in a factory.

  7. 4. Octobering, Red Weddings and Red Funerals were failures as substitutes fro traditional baptisms, wedding and funerals mostly due to the fact that they didn’t involve the church. In Catholicism, the three listed are part of the Holy Sacraments, which are the typical stages of a Catholic’s life. However, all of the ceremonies are practiced with/in the community of the church. Besides the aspect of religion being important to the Soviet community, the church community must have also been important. Thus, without the church community the rituals would not have been celebrated the same. I believe the Bolsheviks got the part of some sort of religion being present with rituals. In most of the Christian faith, God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit are the reasons behind these rituals. For the most part, one goes through with the ritual to get closer to God, the religion or the church. The Bolsheviks should have not gone to an atheistic state, instead they should have gone to an agnostic, freedom of religion or have created their own new religion state. People want something to believe, whether it is the world, a divine being or something else. The people of the Soviet Union just wanted something to believe or were quite content with Greek-Orthodoxy. Overall, I think the Bolsheviks should have not messed with the religion in the USSR.

  8. 7. When brainstorming a list of what came to my head when listening to “Life Has Become Better,” this is what I got.
    -Cheerful singing and music playing
    -A parade happening or at least a party
    The way I describe the song and what would make it Proletarian is that it sounds like they have made a break through and the Proletariats are getting their trained way. They do not have to deal with an experimental aspect of new ideas in the area. The song is different to Mosolov’s “Iron Factory,” because in Mosolov’s piece is sounds deep and dark with very forceful music. the image I think of is that the Avant-Gardists are scientist in a lab experimenting. But overall to the workers, if they want what is best, I believe “Life Has Become Better,” would be the appealing song for them just based on the sound.

  9. Question 3
    When I read about it, the octobering ritual seemed to be a celebration, much like a baptism. Instead of giving your child to god, people were vowing to raise their children as a communist and gave the child to the people. This symbolized hope for a better future. It caught on with the working class. This ritual completely irradicates the need for a god. The child is not given to god, but rather to society in hopes that society will be better for it. This allows for the prejudices that come with religion to disappear. The idea of once you’re baptized, you are a child of God and have to follow that creates a one-sided view of life that we still see today. Although this new ritual would also create a bias against religion, it offers more hope that society will be more collective. Religion focuses on individualism while this new ritual focuses on collectivism. The names offer a new identity and a new sense of collectivism. The choosing of the names was also a new ritual because it allowed both parents to decide, rather than just the man. It also got rid of any chances of a child being named after a saint or religious figure. I like the industrial names. I do not know why I just find it interesting to imagine a child named industry.

  10. In response to question 1:
    I think it was necessary for Soviet thinkers to change culture because in their situation, a change of culture was necessary for their revolutionary agenda to play out. There is already a massive economic gap, and within the gab there is also a massive cultural difference. With this, it gives Bolsheviks a more humane identity in why they wanted a revolution, and not a aggressive power hungry group of people. In order for a revolution to occur, you will need the help of the majority in order for it to succeed. With Russian culture being outdated and with the divisions being so large, providing a new culture in which everyone is “equal” and “fair” can attract the massive, thus support in a change and for the Bolsheviks agenda. They also utilize the term “workers” in order to appeal the people and gain more support, especially for the peasants. I personally believe a cultural revolution is not bad, because there are several aspects that makes a revolution.

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